Whether summer’s spent tied to a desk or lounging by the pool, we all still have to eat. Warmer weather will always be associated with al fresco dining and cool beverages. But some trends are passing (looking at you, frosé), while others have the potential to turn into honest-to-goodness innovation. Here are our picks for the top restaurant trends of the past few months.
Fast-Casual Explodes, But Its Lines Blur
The white hot fast-casual category continued to dominate headlines this summer, with high-profile openings and expansions across the country. Category lines blurred, though, as more restaurants hope to cash in on its success. On one end, fast food worked to, essentially, become more like fast-casual, with the likes of McDonald’s and KFC touting fresh-never-frozen and antibiotic-free ingredients — a hallmark of the fast-casual experience.
As fast casual continued its evolution, it borrowed from fine dining playbooks, introducing custom wine lists, formerly elevated food items like made-to-order sushi, and adapting actual dishes from high-concept restaurants into quicker service models.
In fact, fast-casual is so popular that restaurants have started to differentiate themselves within the category. Danny Meyer’s just-opened Martina in New York City calls itself “fine-casual” but operates under the fast-casual model of offering a limited menu, ordering at the counter, and including an emphasis on takeout.
Casual full-service restaurants, like Ruby Tuesday, have started to move toward a fast-casual model, too, paring down lunch menus and offering midday specials at price points meant to rival prices at fast-casual chains — perhaps in an effort to recapture a lunch crowd that, according to the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, isn’t showing up. Restaurant lunch sales were down $3.2 billion last year, making it the slowest year, traffic-wise, in four decades.
Available Physical Space Shapes Restaurant Offerings
Real estate is a hot topic from cities to suburbs, and the availability of physical space is a huge deciding factor when it comes to the number and types of restaurants opening in any given location. Ten years ago, before the ubiquity of Yelp and GPS and digital recommendations, restaurants had a better chance if they positioned themselves on Main Street. Now, destination dining and the thrill of finding an out-of-the way location — in a major city or tiny town — is part of the popular restaurant experience.
Similarly, smaller restaurants can rely on new technological tools for discovery and popularity, but they’re still limited by the financial constraints of physical space. Food halls continue to open across the country, offering a place for smaller operations to cluster, attracting crowds but avoiding a lot of the costs associated with a dedicated storefront. According to chef and restaurateur David Chang, food halls are the future of small, independent restaurants, especially in cities as the cost for space becomes unsustainable.
Chefs are decamping major high-rent cities in favor of smaller cities where costs are more manageable, diluting the dominance of places like New York and San Francisco. This summer, Food & Wine magazine announced it would move its editorial operations to Birmingham, Alabama from New York City. Its new editor, Hunter Lewis, told the New York Times, “You can create and do business in food anywhere now, and this move is a reflection of the hybrid approach we’re going to take to covering food.”
Perhaps no piece of technology has had greater effect on the business of dining out than Instagram, which has injected itself so deeply into our consumer culture that restaurants consider it in every operational aspect, from menus to decor to glassware to dish presentation. No restaurant category is immune to the siren call of Instagrammability, from fine dining to fast food.
Taco Bell, perhaps the most Instagram-friendly fast food operation of the bunch, prioritizes the look of its Quesalupa in photos. A team monitors social media looking for customers who may be disappointed by the way the cheese stretches, and uses that feedback to ensure its restaurants are constructing and serving the item properly. And the restaurant freely admits Instagram played a pivotal part in the development of its new breakfast item, the Naked Egg Taco.
For independent restaurants, Instagram-friendly touches like intricate floor tiles, a cheeky neon sign, or well-designed menus all elevate digital profiles. And, according to the New York Times, at least one grad student (presumably a millennial) believes that Instagrammability is the path to success for a restaurant. “I don’t know why more restaurants aren’t doing this. You could become super successful by just painting a wall pink.” (No word on whether or not the quality of the food matters.)
Instagram fatigue has to come sometime, though; even the most avid Instagrammer has a limit for millennial pink walls and cheeky chalkboards on the sidewalk positioned to entice customers to step inside. (Or maybe they’re just meant for passersby to photograph; who needs to try the food?)
Delivery Differentiated from In-Restaurant Experiences
Delivery and in-restaurant dining are as alike as grocery store shopping and eating out. While they’re different means of getting to the same end (feed me!), delivery’s impact on restaurants is marked. While a restaurant doesn’t need to have a physical dining room to offer delivery, restaurants with dining rooms are continuing to partner with delivery services to both expand their reach and draw more income from an increasingly delivery-hungry crowd.
One of the summer’s biggest acquisition announcements mirrors this differentiation, as Yelp sold its Eat24 delivery business to a former rival, Grubhub. Yelp holds solid dominance in the recommendations-and-reviews market, but the sale of its delivery business signals Yelp’s renewed focus on the in-restaurant experience for guests (other arms of its business, including reservations, are growing).
Delivery’s popularity is also changing the way we experience even the most ubiquitous, time-tested restaurants. McDonald’s touted the availability of delivery at 7,800 of its restaurants this year (most partnering with UberEats to provide the service), and has started experimenting with new store layouts to accommodate delivery orders and drivers. Starbucks and Subway are also experimenting with changing in-store layouts, both as a result of new mobile ordering technology. Also telling: highlights from second quarter earnings calls show that restaurant brands are giving lots of weight to the full customer experience, creating desirable, tech-forward physical locations to attract and retain business.